During the State of the Union address, President Joe Biden said that “the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police.” The reality is that as homicide rates and law enforcement staffing shortages increase across both red and blue counties in Texas, it’s time we realize the solutions to reimagining police work are actually bipartisan. And it begins with how we handle mental health calls.
Conservatives are quick to fault progressive policies as the cause of these rising homicide rates and staffing shortages. They will point out that many of the cities where homicide rates are rising are in communities with Democratic leadership and are a direct result of “defund the police” movement. The fact is we don’t know the effects this movement has had on police forces and community safety. We can talk anecdotally about the perceived adverse effects of this movement, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
On the other hand, progressives say conservatives are disinterested in police reform and use this issue to stoke fear and rally support. The reality is Republicans view fiscal conservatism and community safety as central to their platforms. Most Democrats look at issues from racial equality and social justice lenses. But when looking from a politically neutral vantage point, the police reform movement represents fundamental tenets of both parties.
Police officers spend a great deal of time on issues that may be better suited for other professions and agencies. Studies have shown that although calls involving individuals in mental health distress are low, the amount of time police officers spend responding to these calls is longer.
What our state needs is a comprehensive approach to dealing with police calls involving mental illness. I have seen firsthand the impact of sending mental health professionals instead of law enforcement. Often, individuals will be incarcerated when other solutions, such as intervention by a mental health crisis response team, are better suited to meet the needs of the person and the community. This simple solution provides alternatives to incarceration while allowing the police to work in a focused line of duty and saves tax dollars. This alternative is just one example of how communities are reimagining police work.
The Police Executive Research Forum recently released a report with recommendations on rethinking the police response to mass demonstrations in light of the protests of the past two years. Part of one recommendation involving improving police training was to emphasize de-escalation techniques. Imagine if we send mental health professionals who specialize in de-escalation, along with the police, to maintain order and peace.
The police budgets of Texas’ four largest cities represent between 33% and 40% of the general funds of those cities. We need to allow cities to fund other programs and services, such as mental health response teams and clinicians, rather than traditional law enforcement. It’s time we use this funding on comprehensive data strategies to evaluate the role of police officers, community safety and needs, and alternative programs designed to address problems with nontraditional methods.
Dallas is just one example. The city has seen reductions in violent crime by using data-driven strategies to address crime with “hotspot” policing by concentrating police efforts on high-crime areas. The nationally recognized CAHOOTS mental health response team in Eugene, Oregon, operates with a budget of $2.1 million but saves the city an estimated $8.5 million annually by responding to 17% of the 911 dispatches.
Although we must be cognizant of the adage “you can’t arrest your way out of crime” and racial profiling, combining innovative policing techniques with mental health response teams, clinicians and other social services offers solutions to addressing crime with a reduced police force.
Reimagining police work includes looking at the data and trying new solutions to old and new problems. This provides our community with innovative, efficient and fiscally responsible ways of working together while maintaining safety. It’s time we move beyond political rhetoric and continue with solutions from both sides of the aisle.
Peter Arellano is a program administrator at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Yahoo! News, Waco Tribune Herald, Amarillo Globe-News, San Antonio Express News, Abilene Reporter News, and the Austin American-Statesman.